The recent news that ResearchGate had secured a $52.6 million Series D investment raised many eyebrows. When two other details emerged, brows became fixed as if by Botox — the funding had occurred in 2015 and was only being divulged to satisfy a German tax regulation, and the investors included Bill Gates, Goldman Sachs, and, yes, the Wellcome Trust.
These are all big-money names, even though Wellcome may not initially seem to be in the same league as Gates and Goldman Sachs. Wellcome itself has £20.9B in the bank. In 2016, Wellcome earned an astonishing 18.8% return on its investments, or £3.5B, only about 20% of which was distributed (£749 million). Wellcome is an investment dynamo that is getting bigger every year.
There is a long tradition of funders helping publishers conduct research, start public-spirited publishing initiatives, and make the works they publish more widely available. But recently, funders have been pushing into publishing with competitive offerings and investments, a decided change from their traditional role of funding research and letting journals and publishers do their jobs independently.
Wellcome is perhaps the most aggressive, with eLife being their most prominent publishing adventure, followed more recently by Wellcome Open Research. Multiple funders with OA mandates also intrude on the publishing marketplace, with the goal of making research publications free to all readers as soon as possible. The Gates Foundation has been the most adamant about compliance among its funded authors, leading to a standoff with multiple top journals, one that may have found a path to resolution with AAAS/Science‘s deal to receive $100,000 this year to support publication of Gates Foundation-funded articles in any of its subscription journals.
The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s (CZI) acquisition of Meta removed a commercial entity from the market, shifting competitive dynamics for many organizations — some positively, some negatively.
What has led to this new activism by funders and philanthropies with regard to researchers and publishers?
The NLM and NCBI continue to use their position to compete with publishers, adding responsive and tablet capabilities, new article recommendation tools, and, most recently, image searching. Meanwhile, despite saying they are not a publisher, they continue to publish for two organizations.
What has led to this lane-changing behavior from funders and philanthropies with regard to researchers, technology, and publishers? Why are they moving into the publishing world with competitive attitudes? Why are they seeking to define publication choices for their funded researchers?
There seems to be a few contributing factors.
- Belief in technology. The Gates Foundation is an organization formed by a family whose fortune was earned at Microsoft. The CZI has a similar legacy via Facebook. Wellcome, for its part, has been on record celebrating what it views as the lower costs and new capabilities of digital publishing, which its leadership has concluded should allow for new approaches to publishing. This same belief that technology changes everything seems to inform many of the open access (OA) mandates coming from other funders, including HHMI and Max Planck. The common argument that scholarly publishers are protectionist dinosaurs certainly plays a part in this thinking. Therefore, as investors, Gates, Wellcome, and CZI certainly believe that if they can bring new technology to the space, they can make it better.
- Antagonism. Observers of scientific and scholarly publishing over the past 15-20 years could be forgiven for internalizing a certain disdain for the main players, and some mistaken beliefs. The profits of some large multinationals, the tin ear our industry has sometimes shown, and our inherent inability to talk about what we do have all contributed to a feeling that something is amiss. The vast diversity of the ecosystem goes unseen by most, being distilled in Silicon Valley and popular culture as “Elsevier,” the talismanic name of our industry. Together, these factors have probably fulminated some antagonism, or at least stirred a hero complex.
- Natural incentives. Funders have a natural incentive to make sure their funding decisions look productive — that is, the funded research gets published, read, and cited. When OA publishing was at its peak of promise, it seemed to align perfectly with these goals. Since then, we’ve learned that the citation advantage was probably illusory, that readership remains difficult to cultivate, and that publication remains a competitive sport for both authors and readers. Nonetheless, these marketing incentives remain, likely leading to investments like ResearchGate, where the purported goal is to turn the publishing shirt inside-out, leaving ResearchGate with all the papers of the past and all the audience of the future. Then, publication, readership, and citation (or whatever metrics ResearchGate asserts) could be more controlled, even contrived, to favor funders’ goals.
- Low investment thresholds. Funders like Wellcome, CZI, and Gates see a market like scholarly and scientific publishing differently — it appears relatively small to them compared to their worldwide mass markets for software, drugs, and social media. Therefore, it doesn’t take much money to dabble in it. This means the risk isn’t high, while the PR and intellectual rewards are immediate, and financial rewards more likely since there’s less money burned up front. The rumored investment in Meta by CZI is probably a day’s over/under for Zuckerberg’s shares of Facebook. The few million for Wellcome or Gates to supercharge ResearchGate for a few years is a blip to them. Yet, for the STM and HSS publishing market, injections of tens of millions of dollars can be destabilizing, especially if these millions are used to drain away established or emerging commercial offerings. For the NLM and NCBI, their technologists are already on the payroll, so there is no marginal cost to putting them to work adopting new and competitive publishing technologies.
These relatively small financial stakes might lead you to think there would be a low level of interest in the outcomes. Yet, the extents to which funders will go to realize a new world order can be impressive.
As I documented a few years ago, Wellcome Trust (via eLife, which was housed on Wellcome property at the time) conspired with the NCBI within the NLM and NIH to give eLife a publishing advantage, using US government taxpayer-paid employees and resources to give a UK funder privileges a normal OA publisher could have only dreamed of, while also creating a sweetheart governance succession plan for Wellcome. Unfortunately, if the rumor mill is accurate, even these machinations and Wellcome’s support may result in just another “me too” journal a few years from now, with APCs and limited differentiation. Perhaps that explains somewhat why Wellcome started Wellcome Open Research?
The Gates Foundation has been willing to foster a public dispute with high-profile journals like Nature, NEJM, and PNAS, to underscore its commitment to CC-BY and Gold OA. The Gates Foundation’s recent deal with AAAS/Science is estimated to cost the Gates Foundation between $6.6K and $10K per published paper. It will be interesting to watch whether this solution (which a Gates Foundation representative describes as “provisional”) is a bellwether for similar deals with other high-profile scientific and medical journals.
Contrast these approaches to spending with other possible investments — in a coalition of professional society publishers to help them compete on the market with the big multinationals; in a reward system for peer reviewers, including financial stipends; or in expanding university press programs. These investments would be supportive, and would not put funders on a collision course with publishers.
These funders — each of whom has a history of jealously guarding its own trademarks, copyrights, and patents — seem willing to tread on others’ intellectual property. Any investment in ResearchGate indicates an ambivalence bordering on disregard for publisher intellectual property. ResearchGate spends much of its marketing bandwidth urging its members to upload articles, despite this likely running afoul of copyright laws. Suspicions run rampant that ResearchGate primes the pump, both with profiles and papers — the platform is notoriously opaque about its conduct. Wellcome itself is living off the legacy of patents and trademarks, the other two legs of the IP stool, so this attitude toward intellectual property seems new or disingenuous, and may reflect a calculated risk that copyright won’t prove to be the Achilles’ heel of ResearchGate.
Wellcome’s investment in ResearchGate seems to indicate an ambivalence bordering on disregard for publisher intellectual property.
Of course, investments themselves aren’t objectionable. Quite the opposite, they can be validating and helpful. What’s different about the investments in publishing by Wellcome and CZI and Gates is that there doesn’t seem to be a clear commercial model for any of them. ResearchGate is, at this point, too well-funded to have a traditional exit — that is, with nearly $100M of investment, it’s far too large to sell at any decent multiple, and with a minimal commercial model based on advertising, it’s not a viable IPO candidate. This means a pivot must be the next move, with the natural expectation being that ResearchGate pivots to become a publisher. This is more difficult than it sounds. Publishers trade in brands, trust, and marketing know-how. ResearchGate may have an advantage in the latter space (albeit marginal), but it does not have parity when it comes to brands or trust. Yet, there is another option — that the funders see a future, via ResearchGate’s captive audience, in which scholarly publishing is run off the proceeds of funders, with no further need for any other commercial model. By virtue of a captive audience, the industry becomes captive as well, via ResearchGate. Funders need only spend a few million dollars every year to make that happen. But the participation of traditional venture funders argues against this potentiality. It’s a confusing investment for every publishing expert I’ve talked with.
Investments predicated on generating a seismic pivot in the academic publishing market may represent a miscalculation on a number of fronts. Scholarly publishing is growing rapidly in terms of articles being published, scientists requiring publication services and outlets, and technical, process, and policy demands. It’s a more complicated market than many realize, and it’s not getting simpler. Transference assumptions around technology experience derived from mass market scale and simple algorithmic approaches will probably break down in translational and emerging spaces, if not beforehand. Scientific and scholarly publishing is about new information, which always challenges technologists as they battle the forefront. The cost of rejection remains a major hidden cost most don’t take into account.
Another miscalculation may be around perceived stability — that is, funders may not realize that there may be one or two Jenga blocks that, if pulled out, could bring major functions of the industry down in a tumble. If professional and scholarly societies suddenly abandon publishing, entire professional strata could suffer major setbacks, causing a rapid depletion of editorial and review person-power. If faith and stability around metrics and transparency falters, the incentives to publish could decrement suddenly, making scientists less eager to submit papers and work their way toward publication. If the major commercial publishers pivot toward technology or aggregation themselves, dropping their commitments to supporting new research publishing, the financial burden on funders could increase 10-100x in a year if they wanted the system to function more or less as-is.
Ultimately, the equilibrium of the system is worth contemplating. On the road, drivers stay in their lanes, or take new lanes carefully, realizing that changing lanes without looking could result in a crash or, worse, a pileup. Rules about when and how to change lanes create an equilibrium that allows everyone to get where they’re going. Funders are crossing lanes — veering into the researcher lane through mandates, into the publishing lane via mandates and investments, and into the technology lane via platform plays. Are they simply inured to what might happen because cars for them seem cheap and accidents easy to walk away from? Or are they trying to own the road for themselves?
Whatever comes, drive carefully, and wear your seatbelt.